Semester research: The (de)evolution of Hindu environmental ethics

Pollution

I spent the semester tracing the evolution of Hindu orthodoxy and orthopraxy as it pertains to conservation, resource consumption and environmental stewardship from Vedic times to modern days through several key texts. Of course, the Hindu canon is much too large for any definitive conclusions, but these texts were selected by my professor as representative of the larger (vastly larger) body of texts.

You can read the full draft paper here. The academic abstract would go something like:

This paper examines Hinduism’s evolving attitudes toward nature and prescriptions of ethical environmental practice during the history of the religion. The paper critically considers eight texts that represent major trends in Hindu philosophy and practice, through the Vedic, classical, medieval and modern periods. In early times, Hindu society associated divinity and worship with natural processes. This was soon challenged by a renunciation theology that rejected the material/natural world entirely. Yet as polities and kingdoms swelled and expanded, social organization and material well-being became chief concerns of philosophers; the natural, wild world took on a negative connotation. Hinduism’s complex and changing cosmology further muddied the waters for questions of right action in environmental dilemmas. Nonetheless, there have been various counter trends with religious roots that may serve as a starting point for a Hindu-centric discussion of environmental protection.

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Back to the start

So right, in so many ways.

That this aired in primetime during the Grammy Awards is a powerful statement. I don’t want to see corporate American brand sustainable, simple living as something of its own (hell, I’ve come late to the party). But my heart is warmed over at the thought of such ethics in the mainstream.

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I’m writing to you, Senator #nokxl

Senator Durbin:

This is not a form letter. You and I have shaken hands plenty; for a while we were on a first-name basis when I was a political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. How many times did I tour the Metro East with you? How many times was I there at town hall meetings in the Collinsville City Council chambers or Edwardsville or Granite City?

Today, I am in graduate school here in D.C. studying environmental policy. I’m an activist. I was arrested for protesting in front of the White House in September. I’m a scholar. I research natural resource policy, environmental degradation and sustainable development.

I’m asking you as a professional acquaintance, as someone who listened for a long time to the political concerns of southern Illinoisans, as a worried citizen and as a registered Illinois voter (my permanent address is in Champaign) to do all you can to stop GOP factions and Big Oil special interests from resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

If you and your allies in the Senate take the time to talk straight to Americans (whatever the hell Fox News thinks), they will listen. If you take a moral stand, you’ll be doing the right thing (whatever the hell the Tea Party thinks).

And if you need help that I can provide, contact me.

There’s so much more we could be doing to invigorate our economy and protect this planet. Think about green jobs in a renewable energy economy. Think solar and offshore wind and green infrastructure. Think better quality of living and public health. Think natural splendor that warms heart and soul.

But if we instead take the cheap (actually more costly) and dirty (yes, really, really dirty) way of burning tar sands, we become that much more path dependent on oil. That’s game over for our planet.

I’ve heard you tell me directly about how Washington needs change, how it’s beholden to special interests, how our government needs bold action.

I say to you, lead the charge.

Adam Jadhav

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Jangal hei

Jangal = jungle

After net gains for several years, India’s forest cover is in decline. The full data is available now from the Forest Survey of India in its newly released State of the Forest Report 2011.

The government writes off any major backsliding, saying the reduction is due to shifting cultivation patterns in the rural northeast, plantation harvesting and Naxal rebels cutting trees. That last one is a dubious.

More likely, there are many factors at play in a complex dynamic that varies state by state. I’m in the process of designing a statistical research project looking for explanation among a number of variables, biological, economic, political and social.

The photo above comes from tropical forest in the Andaman Islands.

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Dear Mr. President…

The President is now apparently waffling on the latest attempts to lay a new pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The administration last month announced it would review the pipeline again for additional social and environmental concerns. Those of us opposed were thrilled; the delay of more than a year would likely kill the pipe. If approved, the pipeline very well could be game over for the battle to stem climate change.

Then the John Boehner-led U.S. House decided to tack a pipeline rider to a tax cut extension. This has become a political wedge and word has it that Obama may now try to use pipeline approval to win other short-term economic aid.

Cough*bullshit*cought

I recognize that while writing a letter feels incredibly empowering it’s still almost entirely symbolic. But I write to the president nonetheless. I’d encourage anyone else who cares about this to do the same.

Mr. President:

I was the 1,253rd person arrested protesting outside your house late this summer. That made me the final person to be cited for civil disobedience — officially failure to obey a lawful order — as we called on you to stem our planet’s addiction to dangerous oil and, in particular, dirty crude from the Athabasca tar sands. Our nation’s foremost climatologist James Hansen has called the Keystone XL pipeline “game over” for the battle to slow the tide of climate change.

Note: I’m not just a fringe tree-hugging hippy. I was a legal and political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, raised in small-town middle America (central Illinois). I covered your campaign in 2008 as well as your efforts on behalf of others in 2006. I voted for you in your presidential run and your senate bid. I’ve followed you since Springfield and the state senate. I pay my taxes.

And I ride just left of center, politically.

Or at least I did. But the condition of our planet has convinced me to shed my neutral observer hat and don the fighting gloves an activist. That’s why I’m in grad school at American University, researching global environmental policy and issues. That’s why I was happily arrested in September for this cause. That’s why I was shouting “Show me what democracy looks like!” outside your house again in November. And that’s why I expect you to keep the promises you made when you were elected.

Sir, we need a fighter today; yes, the country is in dire straits economically, but you know as well as I do that short, myopic time horizons — the ones that set up the false environment-jobs dichotomy — only cause more problems in the future. Compromise is laudable to be sure, but how far will you bend?

You are a man of faith and morals; you and I pray our creator for the safety of those we love. Well, I believe that if we’re truly made in God’s image then we have a duty to look after our brothers and sisters and the lilies of the field as well. I heard you tell the world that we are our brothers’ keepers. Well, sir, addressing the environmental destruction of our planet is part of fulfilling that responsibility. By helping to look after the planet, you help to look after all its inhabitants.

Please, stop thinking about what Boehner or Fox News pundits will say about you tomorrow or next month. Please, stop worrying about a future date with Mitt or Newt or Rick. Please, instead start thinking about what kind of a world Malia and Sasha and (some day) my children will need.

Respectfully but urgently,

Adam Jadhav

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Panchayats the answer to India’s environmental woes? Not yet…

I spent much the past semester debating all the various ways society and individuals might protect the environment. What else would you expect from a policy program?

One answer I stumbled upon and investigated is India’s traditional form of local government, made constitutionally secure not quite two decades ago: the panchayat — literally the council of five.

Panchayats represent India’s attempts at decentralization, the supposed transfer of powers from the central and state governments down to village-level actors. For the environment, this theoretically promises that resource, conservation and protection decisions are made at the level where they are actually felt. In reality, panchayats today are hardly robust institutions of local governance. They’re mostly used as implementing agencies for India’s development agenda. Meanwhile they face competition from other less than secure or democratic institutions specifically designed to manage resources.

I’m not promising it’s the most riveting read; and I’m not certain I like the final product. This issue could be a much longer paper involving substantial field work. But click here if you really want to know.

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Let’s work in concert

I’m a sucker for well-produced, moving video.

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Footprint, schmootprint… an overconsumer’s confession

Ouch...

Actually, this is somewhat serious. I’m an overconsumer; if everyone on the planet were to live my lifestyle, we’d need several more earths. And yet I don’t own a car, I don’t eat meat, I eat primarily organic and my landlords purchase 100 percent wind electricity. I do fly considerably more than the average person, but even subtracting that carbon output, my lifestyle is still well above the planet’s per capita biocapacity.

While all eco-footprint calculators have serious deficiencies — a finding from my semester science brief (click here for a boring PDF) — the reality is that in America, we use more than our fair share; beyond our personal consumption, our lives are supported by carbon/resource intense infrastructure and government spending, as well as social, medical and commercial services.

Interested in finding out your footprint? Click here for a simplified version from the Global Footprint Network.

I can’t be all doom and gloom — certainly we’ve made some relative strides in recent years, in environmental governance, recycling, personal habits, “green” consumption, reforestation (in parts of the globe). But such incremental eco modernization (Arthur Mol, say what?) does little to offset rising global consumption as more and more countries attempt to mimic a U.S. standard of living (Peter Dauvergne and Gus Speth know what’s up). We see real global warming and resource depletion around the world; denying that is just not an option anymore.

I believe the social scientists who say we face serious limits to growth. We need to make changes, individually yes, but more importantly as a society.

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Is shark finning the answer to shark finning?

Cruising behind him

Global shark catch is staggering. As many as 73 million sharks are taken from the ocean each year; most are relieved of their fins and dumped back in the water while still alive. These beautiful and important predators now face serious threats from our wanton harvesting, mostly to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup.

First and foremost this is tragic simply in terms of human decimation of biodiversity. Excepting that ecological concern, there are real reasons to worry from an entirely anthropocentric standpoint. For one, sharks provide ecotourism benefits to many coastal economies, as divers pay substantially to see them. Also, as apex predators, a decline in shark populations can lead to explosions of other species on lower trophic levels, which can threaten ecosystems of commercial importance For example, fewer sharks lead to more rays which lead to less scallops for us to sell for dipping in butter.

Is there an answer? Shark sanctuaries are fantastic; they represent the ideal of conservation. However, given problems with enforcement and the potential for bans to simply displace degradation rather than curtail it, national prohibitions don’t seem realistic as a complete solution.

I argue, rather, that we need to recognize — at least in the interim — the reality that shark finning will likely continue. We would do well then to incentivize conservation and better management so that fishermen and fleets develop an interest in preserving rather than over-harvesting. In this class paper, I lay out the economic reasoning for a nation-by-nation transferable shark fishing quota system.

This would push harvests toward social and biological optimums; in conjunction with marine protected areas and fishing best practice standards, a quota system might actually slow the destruction of shark populations worldwide.

It’s not a particularly palatable option for shark lovers (myself included). Under a quota system, some number of sharks like the one above will still be killed for an overpriced, elitist broth. But it also might do better to ensure that a sustainable population of sharks sticks around.

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Lost photo: Maasai Mara as a storm rolls in

Mara

Every now and then, I enjoy going through old photo libraries looking for gems I missed. This one is particularly appropriate as I’ve been debating the merits of running away from the “system,” living off the grid in a utopia of simplicity.

Sadly, I don’t think it’s possible and too ideal.

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